Equator Coffees in Oakland: four employees walked out on the job there citing racial inequity issues at the company. Credit: Brandy Collins

On Monday, Sept. 28, four employees at Oakland’s Equator Coffees walked out on the job at the beginning of their shift. Later that day, they created an Instagram account where they explained in a post that racial inequities were the reason for their protest.

“We are walking out because as women of color, we have experienced a company climate at Equator that has ranged from negligent to hostile toward us when we have voiced our needs and communicated ways Equator could better support us,” they wrote. The aggrieved employees go on to state that although Equator’s leadership claims to practice “anti-racist” practices, its “good intentions” are mostly performative.

Nosh reached out to the former Equator employees about the incident, but they have turned down our request for an interview at this time. Equator co-founder and CEO, Hellen Russell, however, did speak to us.

According to Russell, the walk-out came as a surprise to leadership. Equator, like many other companies this summer, began to openly show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Russell said Equator hired a consulting company, developed a mentorship program, hosted town halls focused on institutional bias, led staff and leadership trainings about institutional racism and sent surveys to staff that allowed them to respond anonymously. The walk-out came on the tail end of a recent Equator town hall, but, according to Russell, the staff at the Oakland cafe were still reeling from a “conflict amongst the baristas,” which led to an employee being dismissed. No specific details about the incident were shared with Nosh.

“There’s a lot of pain. People are in pain. Obviously, the three folks who left were in a lot of pain,” Russell said. According to Russell, three of the employees left the company after the walk-out; one still works at Equator.

In June, Equator Coffees joined countless other businesses, that posted a black square on its Instagram feed in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In June, Equator Coffees joined countless other businesses in posting a black square on its Instagram feed in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, an action some criticized as a performative stand-in for building diversity into the business.

Russell — who founded Equator in 1995 with Brooke McDonnell, with the goal of “making people’s lives better” through high-quality, fair-trade and sustainably grown coffee — acknowledges she had not been aware of the issues brewing closer to home, within her ranks. “Because I might be a gay woman but I am a white privileged woman and I know that. And I never really thought too much about it until the last six months.”

The last six months, of course, have been marked by a succession of protests for racial justice in the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and a number of other Black Americans who were killed by police officers or were victims of racially motivated violence.

Equator was not prepared for, or expecting to account for, issues of race and diversity to affect their coffee company, and they were not alone. In June, companies across the nation were putting black squares on their social media pages and placing signs in their windows in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many have faced a backlash, however — called out for being merely performative rather than doing the hard work of building diversity and inclusion into the core of their businesses.

“This year with George Floyd’s murder, and specifically the black squares on Instagram, triggered people to call out companies and corporations for hypocrisy,” said Nick Cho, co-owner of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, a San Francisco-based fourth-wave coffee company that prioritizes diversity and inclusion in its business model, from determining pricing and menu items to its decor. Cho made waves in Berkeley when he opened his cafe on Shattuck Avenue and led the campaign against the neighborhood’s nickname, “Gourmet Ghetto,” for being racist.

Cho believes some owners of coffee shops missed the point — and the opportunity — to make a real difference with their actions.

“Find a way to express it in a new fresh way that actually expresses true and deeper understanding than just saying Black Lives Matter over and over again. It’s great that you learned those three words, in that order. In what ways have you expressed it and understand what that means?” said Cho, who did not provide details of steps Wrecking Ball has been making to further causes of diversity and inclusion. In recent days, Wrecking Ball announced it will continue to operate as a takeout window, and will not reopen its cafes for seating indoorsfor the safety of its staff until the pandemic is over.

Why are race and inclusion important matters to discuss and resolve for companies that sell coffee? Coffee originates largely in countries where Black and brown people do the work of harvesting and producing it, but aren’t necessarily the target audience. A report by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of the socio-demographic predictors of coffee consumption in the U.S. from 2011-2017 showed that people in higher income groups and non-Hispanic whites were the largest consumers of coffee. More recent data collected by the National Coffee Association USA, shows that African Americans have always been the lowest consumers of coffee when compared to Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Caucasians. However, since 2019, African Americans are showing growth in consumption — especially of gourmet and non-espresso based beverages.

This lack of diversity has tinged society’s preconceptions about who belongs in the coffee culture — whether it be customers, business owners or employees. And more people are starting to voice their concerns and take notice, as evidenced by recent headlines. In 2015, comedian W. Kamau Bell reported being a victim of racism at Berkeley’s Elmwood Cafe, when he was told by a staffer to leave while he was talking to his (white) wife and her friends at one of the outdoor tables. In 2018, two Black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks for sitting at a table without making a purchase as they waited for their friend. Last year, employees of Mighty Good Coffeein Ann Arbor, Michigan, planned to unionize when an employee quit after being passed over for promotions multiple times compared to her white colleagues. And this June, Counter Culture Coffee, a wholesale specialty coffee roaster in Philadelphia was accused of systemic racism and covering up abuse complaints.

Equity built into the business model

There are some businesses, however, that have, since their beginnings, ensured practices of equity and awareness are built into their model, and many are in the East Bay.

“You already should be that, you don’t need to use these words to drum up business and you don’t have to shout it on the rooftops that you’re diverse and radically inclusive,” said Guerilla Cafe owner Andrea Ali.

Since its opening in 2006 by Ali, Keba Konte and Rachel Konte, Guerilla has been creating awareness of social justice movements by building relationships.

“When we originally opened the cafe, we wanted to have a social justice platform,” said Ali. “We just wanted it to be not overtly in your face but every time someone comes in they have something they can read about, an international hero or someone who has influenced the world.”

Guerilla owner Andrea Ali serves a customer. Credit: Brandy Collins

Ali said her employees are like family and support one another. Guerilla customers and employees alike are expected to acknowledge and respect cultural differences to make for a healthier environment.

“We start by building community and it’s not just come to work for me and I’ll see you tomorrow or short-term relationships,” Ali said.

That sense of community has created some lifelong friendships and business partnerships well after people have gone on to other ventures.

Keba and Rachel Konte eventually sold their share of the business to Ali and moved on to open Red Bay Coffee, an Oakland-based company that has prioritized social justice from its inception. Red Bay believes in expanding expectations of not only who can own a coffee shop (the Kontes are Black), but who can serve and drink it. The company’s hiring practices include employing those who may have been traditionally left out of the high-end coffee world — including formerly incarcerated individuals and people with disabilities.

Jessica Moncada-Konte worked at both her family’s businesses, Guerilla Cafe and Red Bay Coffee, before opening her specialty craft liquor and coffee retail shop and tasting room, Alkali Rye, with business partner Kori Saika Chen. Alkali Rye prioritizes inclusion by focusing on beverage makers from Black, Indigenous and other people of color, women and queer communities.

Both Moncada-Konte and Saika Chen say they have experienced dismissiveness about racial issues at other workplaces during their careers in the hospitality industry, and have had colleagues and supervisors who weren’t aware of how issues like police brutality and other injustices against people of color affected them.

Kori Saika Chen, co-owner at Alkali Rye, a specialty beverage shop in Oakland, which prioritizes selling products made by BIPOC, women and queer makers. Credit: Brandy Collins

“If you are marginalized or you’re not in an environment that is as diverse or something, you’re constantly having to navigate being on guard or, yeah, not having to use coded language,” said Saika Chen. The experience becomes isolating, he said, making it difficult to remain productive within the work environment because employees cannot authentically be themselves.

Moncada-Konte recalled feeling a noticeable difference when coming to work in a space where inclusiveness and equity were already instilled in the company’s values.

“So it’s not even like, let me get some Black people to work here,” she said, “but how do you actually make it an environment that people of color feel safe working?”

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger, and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and a self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @MsBrandyCollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.